Wheeling High helps students with Tutoring in the Park
As public health guidelines have compelled District 214 to offer a mix of remote and in-person learning throughout this semester, providing in-person enrichment opportunities for students became a persistent challenge.
While school staff made countless adjustments to ensure that students enjoyed equitable learning experiences regardless of whether they were at home or in a school building, they also came to see that providing enrichment opportunities would require additional recalibration.
At Wheeling High School, Becky Kinnee realized that while she knew how to give her own children access to these kinds of programs, others weren't as fortunate.
"If I want enrichment experiences for my own children, I have the means to search and find experiences," she said. "I want that to be possible for all students. How can we come alongside families to offer support?"
That's when the idea that "it takes a village" really began to resonate for her. She asked herself, "what can we provide to engage kids and families, not just in academics, but whole child experiences in art, music, STEM?"
After giving it some thought, Kinnee created Tutoring in the Park, a program offering students of all ages an opportunity to join activities at Willow Trails Park in Prospect Heights and Northside Park in Wheeling from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays.
With help from Wheeling High School staff and students, Tutoring in the Park offered tutoring, music lessons, tech support and some activities for middle school and elementary students from Aug. 8 through Nov. 7, missing only one week due to inclement weather.
Teachers and students from Wheeling's COVID Catch-up Tutors, National Honor Society and Lit Lab came together to help students in different subject areas, from math and chemistry to English and language arts, including AP-level classes. In addition, Wheeling orchestra and guitar teacher Sarah Struebing gave music lessons, including violin and cello instruction.
"We know that a strong school-community-home partnership is important to learning," Kinnee said. "Part of the beauty of this has been that we're going to the community. We tried to pick areas that kids could just walk over, hang out at the park for an hour, get some tutoring, talk to some teachers, form some relationships and then be on their way for the rest of their Saturday."
Overall, Kinnee said, as many as 20 students have attended sessions, with many returning. At the same time, a core group of 10 teachers has regularly donated their time, with other teachers showing up when they were available. At least 10 different student tutors volunteered to work with students as well.
For example, Wheeling junior Brandon Suerth got involved with Tutoring in the Park through COVID Catch-up Tutors, a group of students who came together to tutor other students over the summer. Suerth, who has shown up for every session, tutored freshmen in biology and algebra, among other areas, and worked with sophomores in chemistry as well as AP government and AP human geography.
"The students came because they wanted to get help," he said. "And I really enjoyed being in the program because it gave me an opportunity to help others. It's my responsibility as an upperclassman to help the underclassmen. My freshman year I received help from seniors, and it's just an overall good experience."
In addition, Suerth said, the teachers were terrific, adding, "I would like to thank Mrs. Kinnee, Ms. Struebing and Mr. (Brad) Kahler for organizing and promoting the tutoring, the teachers who came on their free time to help tutor on the weekends and the administration for their continued support."
In addition to tutoring and other activities, Tutoring in the Park also gave students and parents access to IT and administrative help.
"Brad Kahler, our (technical support staffer), has been there almost every single week," Kinnee said. "He brought hot spots and new keyboards for kids, and the kids arranged to meet him there and pick up new chargers. He's also helped people get their forms done for remote learning and with logins. He has been awesome in providing tech help."
Another support for students and their parents was Henry Brown, Wheeling's associate principal of Student Services. Brown showed up to help parents fill out return-to-school forms and set up parent-teacher conferences.
Fluent in Spanish, he was also available to help Spanish-speaking parents and students with a variety of matters that they normally would have had to handle in school if it were open.
As the weather changes, Kinnee is working with school officials and community leaders and organizations to figure out what's next for the program. Her goal is to transition Tutoring in the Park to a much more comprehensive enrichment program called Rise Up.
"Basically, Rise Up is an extension of Tutoring in the Park," she said. "When I had this idea, it was never just about tutoring. It was really about asking students and the community, 'What do you need? How can we help you?' And not just in the school -- there are times where we feel like we do have a hard time connecting with our community, getting our families into the building and engaged in the activities we're offering here in school. We would love to see more enrichment programming.
"We know that even when we're taking standardized tests or applying to colleges, so many of the things that help kids to get ahead are the enrichment experiences of their lives, not necessarily the core curriculum that we're teaching in school," Kinnee said.
"And so the idea is to listen to our students and their parents and come alongside them to provide resources and opportunities that would help our students to dream big and achieve those dreams."